A Brief History of Estée Lauder Models

From Karen Graham to Kendall Jenner—the catwalkers who landed the coveted beauty contract.

By Baze Mpinja


In the past 45 years, only 15 models have scored coveted beauty contracts with Estée Lauder. While it’s not shocking that a company this legendary would be super-picky about whom it chooses to embody its beloved franchises and new launches, the recent announcement that Kendall Jenner has joined the Lauder lineup did manage to send shockwaves through the Internet.Nobody saw that one coming.

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But now that the news has sunk in, it’s becoming clear that tapping a sought-after “Instagirl” with a massive social media following just might be the smartest, fastest way to get a new generation of beauty junkies hooked on a venerable brand. While we wait to see how this calculated move plays out (and place bets on who will be next), we decided to look back at the stunning faces that have represented Estée Lauder over the years—it’s been one gorgeous evolution. 

KAREN GRAHAM: 1970-1985


For a model who’s catwalking her way up through the ranks, the ultimate career status symbol is a lucrative contract with a beauty company. What young up-and-comers may not realize, however, is that those contracts didn’t even exist before 1970. Mississippi-born Karen Graham is not only the first official spokesmodel for Estée Lauder, she is also the first model to ever have a beauty contract, period. That’s pretty impressive for a woman who fell into the business by accident. In 1969, a chance run-in at a department store with modeling agency founder Eileen Ford kicked off Graham’s two-decade-long career in front of the camera. The year after she was discovered, she booked her first photo shoot for Estée Lauder. What happened next, she says, is simple: “After working on and off for [the brand] for a year, people began to call me the Estée Lauder girl!” Graham got signed, and the rest is history. Her run lasted until 1985, but she came back for a brief stint in 1998 (at age 56) to star in ads for Resilience Lift.

WILLOW BAY: 1983-1988


In addition to being genetically blessed, Willow Bay had the kind of good luck that many aspiring models would kill for. When she was a sophomore in high school, Bay went on an interview for an internship at  Seventeen and wound up on the cover of the magazine. Then, while studying English at the University of Pennsylvania, her roommate’s boyfriend just so happened to be Estée Lauder’s grandson. That’s what led the then-20-year-old to quit her job at a local newspaper for a modeling contract with the company. Bay, who grew up in New York, had a classic, fresh-faced look that was a perfect fit for the brand’s all-American image. She appeared in a variety of campaigns, but her biggest claim to Lauder fame was that she was the first blushing “bride” in the Beautiful ads when the fragrance launched in 1985.



For decades, Estée Lauder had enjoyed total beauty counter domination, but as the 1980s were coming to a close, rivals Lancôme and Chanel were nipping at its heels. Enter sexy Czech model Paulina Porizkova. The decision to bring her on board signaled a deliberate departure from the pure and innocent bride, motivated by the desire to revamp the brand. ”I felt we were getting too demure,” chairman emeritus Leonard Lauder explained in  The New York Times. ”If we spend all our time looking back instead of forward, we will wake up and find all our customers have gone to another land.” Porizkova made her debut with sensual ads for Knowing (although she too would later don a veil in Beautiful campaigns). It’s rumored that Porizkova earned a $6 million salary while with Lauder, the highest-paying contract at that time. Not too shabby considering that the super said she grew up in Sweden ugly and dateless. Looks like everything turned out just fine.

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Multiple top models began their careers as hopeful teenagers schlepping to castings and dealing with constant rejection. And then there was Elizabeth Hurley. She was the ripe old age of 29 when she got her first modeling job—and it was with Estée Lauder. Her striking, elegant look was put to work in a slew of fragrance ads, including Sensuous and Dazzling, but now she’s primarily known for her work with the company’s Breast Cancer Awareness initiatives. Since she first inked a deal with Lauder in the mid-’90s, Hurley has helped the brand raise millions for the cause. The partnership couldn’t be more fitting—Hurley lost her own grandmother to breast cancer in 1992.



This is a face that could sell millions of skin creams (and probably has). Carolyn Murphy’s timeless look, which has become synonymous with Estée Lauder, only seems to be getting better with age. The Florida-born super celebrated her 40th birthday this year and her career is still on fire. Murphy’s contract with Lauder has been going strong for 14 years, and she recently appeared on the cover of Russian  Tatler. On top of that, she can be seen (almost) baring it all in the new  Pirelli Calendar alongside models half her age. As the second-oldest woman on the 2014  Forbes list of the world’s highest-paid models, Murphy is grateful for the longevity she has enjoyed in the industry. As she told The Edit, “It’s fulfilling to know I was part of an era in the ’90s that represented a melding of fashion, music, and art. I wanted to be part of a creative movement. These poor girls today barely have a career and poof, the industry is on to the next.”

LIYA KEBEDE: 2002-2007


The iconic Ethiopian supe made history and headlines in the early aughts when she became the first-ever black model for Estée Lauder. Today, Kebede is as known for her commitment to charity work as she is for her stunning looks. She was named World Health Organization’s Goodwill Ambassador for Maternal, Newborn, and Child Health in 2005, and started the Liya Kebede Foundation in conjunction with the partnership. She continues to juggle a steady stream of modeling jobs with her roles as a clothing designer and an ongoing advocate for women’s health. She was named one of Time's 100 Most Influential People in 2010, and in 2013 she was honored as a Glamour Woman of the Year. “Liya Kebede is an eternal beauty with an incredible fashion sense. She is a wonderful role model to women today through all of her philanthropic efforts,” says Aerin Lauder, founder and creative director of Aerin and style and image director of Estée Lauder.



While Kebede scored attention for bringing diversity to the beauty juggernaut, Gwyneth Paltrow brought major star power. The Oscar winner was the first bona fide celebrity to join the Lauder roster, a few years before she began reinventing herself as a domestic goddess and wellness expert. Paltrow was hired to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of Pleasures, the global blockbuster scent. “As one of the most recognized women in the world, we are delighted to have her first campaign be for Pleasures—one of the most popular fragrances in the world,” said John Demsey, group president for Estée Lauder, when Paltrow’s contract was announced. Before she and the brand parted ways, she also appeared in ads for Sensuous and White Linen, enticing customers with her trademark radiance and impeccably groomed look.

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ANJA RUBIK: 2006-2009


Her time with Estée Lauder was short compared with her counterparts, but Polish beauty Anja Rubik will always stand out as one of the edgier faces to ever be cast as the “Beautiful bride.” Her distinct Eastern European features made the Beautiful ads feel modern while still maintaining the optimistic vibe of the past. Along with her sexy, fierce look, Rubik is opinionated and isn’t afraid to speak her mind. As the catwalker stated here on  Style.com, she often uses her magazine,  25, as an outlet to sound off on topics like fashion and nudity. “The artists, designers, and models I work with understand that females are capable of great pleasure and power. All women should know that. It would be great if women would stop competing with one another and be supportive instead. It’s something I’m trying to fight for, one topless photo at a time.” We think that Estée Lauder, herself a forward-thinking champion for women, would approve.

HILARY RHODA: 2007-2013


When Hilary Rhoda was chosen to join the EL lineup, Aerin Lauder said that her “sophisticated, all-American look” was absolutely “perfect” for the brand. And her nearly seven-year run with the company proved that to be true. Although Rhoda, who hails from Chevy Chase, Maryland, makes modeling appear as easy as breathing, she  once admitted that it didn’t always come so naturally to her. “No one can really prepare you to be comfortable in front of a camera until you just get out there and do it,” she says. Well, she must have done something right because she signed with Lauder just one year after she got her big break walking in Balenciaga’s Spring 2006 show.



At the beginning of this decade, the execs at Estée Lauder reinforced the brand’s huge global presence by bringing in a trio of models who could speak to women all over the world. The long overdue move was met with enthusiastic approval in the beauty world. Lauder welcomed Liu Wen from China, Constance Jablonski from France, and Joan Smalls from Puerto Rico. All three beauties are fixtures on the runway, editorial favorites, and the first women from their respective countries (or territory, in Smalls’ case) to ever represent Estée Lauder. Wen got the added distinction of being the first Asian Lauder girl in history, and journalists were quick to make her the unofficial spokesperson for changing beauty standards. As Wen told CNN : “It has been an honor to represent my country as a model, but I don’t think I’ve ever thought of myself as an ambassador, just someone trying to do her job as best as she can—so there isn’t that much pressure at all! If what I’ve done so far can inspire others in China, then of course it is a great thing.”

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With a name like Arizona Muse, this model was born to be the face of Lauder’s first new fragrance in 10 years, Modern Muse. The name of the scent couldn’t be more appropriate—the model is still a constant source of inspiration, serving as the cover girl for nine magazines in 2014 alone.



When Stephanie Seymour was introduced as an Estée Lauder spokesmodel in February of this year, she made a confession: “As a young girl, my mother had a dream for me and that was to be an Estée Lauder model! So this is truly a dream fulfilled!” It’s interesting that 46-year-old Seymour, who has appeared onhundreds of magazine covers during her career, wasn’t signed sooner. Her sensual, dark-haired, light-eyed beauty is reminiscent of Porizkova, Hurley, and even Rhoda, making her an obvious fit for the general aesthetic of the brand. But now that the icon has finally made it into the elite EL club, the company is banking on her Re-Nutriv ads to carry on the tradition of celebrating women of (or approaching) a certain age.



Speaking of age, 19-year-old  Kendall Jenner is the resident newbie in the house of Lauder. While that may seem surprisingly young for the brand, Bay and Rhoda were only 20 when they signed on; Rubik was 21. But unlike the models before her, Jenner comes to the table with a very 2014 kind of pedigree: Her family has amassed an insane level of fame and fortune from a reality show and the endorsements that go along with it. Plus, Jenner has more than 15 million Instagram followers. It’s certainly a different background story than Graham being randomly scouted on her lunch break by Eileen Ford, however, Jenner’s social media influence ties back to a quote that Estée Lauder was known for: “Telephone, telegraph, tell-a-woman.” The visionary founder always believed in the power of word of mouth. Now, with Jenner’s help, getting the word out to millions of potential customers is as simple as uploading a selfie.

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photos: Estée Lauder; Gianni Penati (2), Getty Images (5,6,8,130: Indigital Images (7,9,12); GoRunway (10)